Although the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge made for depressing headlines, it’s important to understand fire’s role in the forest’s life cycle. Fire is a crucial component that helps forests regrow greener and stronger than before. Our forests actually rely heavily on the occasional natural or manmade fire to renew themselves.

It goes without saying that watching coverage of the Gorge burning for days on end was difficult to bear. Many of us who relish nature hikes in our beloved public lands were heartbroken to see vast swaths of trees burned beyond recognition and smoke clouding the atmosphere for miles. The Eagle Creek fire certainly was a serious and life-threatening event; it even rained ash in the nearby city of Portland. The air quality was polluted for several days following the incident, and many people living in surrounding towns were evacuated.

How Wildfires Benefit Our Forests

Firefighters risked their lives to control the fire to protect people and property in communities nearby. It makes sense to show concern and fear over a major forest fire that grew to torch tens of thousands of acres. Yet, media coverage and politicians frequently take advantage of such events to push anti-environmental agendas, blowing their descriptions of the forest out of proportion. Even Lt. Damon Simmons of the Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau responded to The Oregonian that the forest is not the charred wasteland the media tried to portray. “The gorge still looks like the gorge. It’s not a blackened, destroyed no-man’s land.”

This is partially due to the fact that the fire burned in a healthy mosaic pattern. Several plant species that thrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest rely on fire to regenerate and grow. Forest fires prepare the soil for seeding by creating an open seedbed, which makes nutrients more available for uptake. One of fire’s most important effects is that it often kills invasive species that compete with native plants.

Fires that burn in this pattern burn hot in some areas, killing off most of the trees, while other areas burn lightly or not at all. Heavily burned areas can initially be difficult to look at, but in time these areas produce some of the beauty we see today. These areas create pockets in which diverse vegetation can grow, which then provides nutrients for wildlife.

Burned patches allow dead trees that are left standing to house food and provide shelter for wildlife. When dead trees are left in place, they help stabilize steep slopes while adding vitamins to the soil. The fallen trees protect future generations of forest. Logging, on the other hand, prevents the forest from gaining the much-needed nutrition they receive from dead trees. In fact, human intervention in wildfires has only negatively affected the overall health of the forest.

More Fire Facts

Now that you know that fire isn’t always a bad thing, it’s important to understand how humans have interfered with the forest’s natural life cycle.

Humans Have Worsened Forest Fires

Over the last hundred years, well-intentioned actions to improve the life of the forest have backfired. By removing old growth, planting dense stands of young trees, and taking steps to prevent the development of naturally-occurring fires, humans have created even more flammable conditions. By partaking in these activities, we have increased the odds of experiencing a particularly devastating fire.

A Change in Climate Will Bring Hotter Fires

In line with the previous fact, scientists expect that famously cool Pacific Northwest summer temperatures will only rise and experience even less rainfall. They also predict that winters will bring less snow. The drier environment could drastically strengthen the intensity of future fires.

Logging Recovering Areas Makes Things Worse

Salvage logging, which includes old-growth logging, after forests burn is a controversial practice that allows bulldozers and other heavy equipment into fragile areas that are recovering from a natural process. Both live and dead trees are cut and cleared. This destroys wildlife habitat and the dead trees left standing. It interferes with the advancement of future healthy forests as loggers kill large numbers of seedlings during the process. Logging further damages the soil and pushes more mud and sediment into rivers and streams relied upon for drinking water.

Forest Fires Release Less Carbon Than Logging

It seems almost everything we do as a species to alter our environment makes things worse! As it turns out, forest fires release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than logging, according to a study by Dr. Beverly Law, a professor of Global Change Forest Science in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.

Our firefighters understand the delicate ecosystem and put their lives on the lines each day to keep our communities safe while doing as little damage as possible to the lands we cherish. To learn more about issues impacting safety, well-being, and justice, visit rizlaw.com.  To schedule a confidential appointment to discuss a claim with an attorney, call (503) 245-5677 or email info@rizklaw.com.